Friday, October 17, 2014

A Stop in Hue, a Birthday in Hoi An

After spending a day recovering in Hanoi, I boarded another night bus bound for Hue, where I hoped to meet back up with my English friends Lydia, Kate, and Adam.  I grabbed a Bahn Mi for the road, and finally boarded the bus - a far cry from the one I had taken to Sapa - older dirty, with barely functioning air conditioning, and a bathroom that was in pieces, but thankfully functional.  I did manage to get some sleep, despite the jerking bus and the occasional workers smoking in the bathroom.  I was jerked awake by a massive bump that sent us all out of our seats momentarily right around 6:30 am, and as I squinted my eyes I could see the gorgeous colors of sunrise, smears of pink, orange, and purple over a flat green field with rolling hills in the background, like a watercolor painting.  Unfortunately we didn't arrive into Hue until nearly 12:30, but the bus did arrive a mere block from the hostel where my friends were staying.  I dropped my bags and changed into fresh clothes, having arrived just in time to join them for lunch and a visit to the Citadel.  

As we walked towards the river, a light rain began that would last through the rest of the day.  We passed small dragon tourist boats as we walked along the river's edge, finally crossing a long bridge, then passing through a narrow city gate on our way to the Citadel.  The area inside the wall was very spread out, and we passed a small museum with tanks and airplanes from the "resistance against American imperialists", what we refer to as the Vietnam War.  We finally made it to another small moat, full of lotus blossoms, the rain running off the leaves in huge droplets, finding a gate ornately decorated in mosaic tiles.  As this particular gate was an exit, we walked around the inner wall to the enormous entrance, across from a large platform with a massive Vietnamese flag.  

We paid and entered, crossing a beautiful pavilion to a primary building that served as a throne room, where guests and dignitaries were received and celebrations held.  Out the back was another pavilion, flanked by two massive urns, with a gold colored dragon in the center.  Behind the dragon was the forbidden purple city, mostly in ruins from the war, though some areas - small pavilions and pagodas - had been restored or rebuilt.  

As I wandered, I lost the rest of my group, but bumped into a German guy we had met earlier, chatting as we walked through some of the gazebos and gardens, finally reconvening with the rest of my water-logged group.  They wanted to head back to the hostel, but I was slightly less drenched (this is why I always carry an umbrella in my purse in Asia), and our new German friend offered to pay for a taxi to visit one of the nearby pagodas, so I joined him for the quick trip.  We visited Thein Mu Pagoda, a beautiful structure right on the river, with tiny buildings on either side, each housing stone tablets inscribed with characters, one of which sat atop a large stone turtle.  Beyond these was the actual temple area, with a fat, smiling buddha statue and a monk in brown robes who sounded a massive singing bowl, letting out a vibration that reverberated around the complex.  We turned to go, passing a large urn with gifts of incense, the fragrant smoke curling up through the wet air, and an old woman with deep lines on her face who gave me a warm smile as we passed.  

We caught a taxi back into town, then he left to catch a train to Hoi An, and I returned to the hostel, stepping out later for a quick, delicious bowl of beef pho on a street corner, chatting briefly with a local named Yu who apparently worked at the restaurant next door.  

The next morning, my friends caught the 8 am bus to Hoi An, while I would be taking the 1 pm.  I was happy for the chance to get some extra sleep and fill up on a big plate of breakfast food before boarding, as I researched places to stay.  I decided to wing it when I arrived, not realizing that this would be the perfect decision.  The bus was much cleaner and nicer this time, and when I arrived, I decided to start wandering down a nearby main road called Nguyen Duy Hieu looking for a homestay, as one of my friends had recommended.  

I very quickly came upon a small hotel with a guy sitting out front who looked oddly familiar, but I also saw a group of high school kids coming and going and decided to keep walking.  I wound up walking for about an hour through the heat with my heavy pack and finding nothing, so I turned around and marched back to that hotel.  As I asked about room availability and rates, the familiar looking guy walked up - he not only worked there, but was the new manager, as of a few days ago, of the hotel that would now be called DK's House.  And he was familiar, because he had been working at Hanoi Backpackers, and he was the guy in charge at the bar the night I had watched the Netherlands-Mexico World Cup game, who I had basically hidden next to during the second half when I retreated to the bar, since he was the one maintaining order.  That meeting would turn out to be quite fortuitous for both my time in Hoi An, and for some decisions I would make down the road…

I wound up in a single room, in a luxurious double bed, exactly what I needed after so many long bus rides and short stays in dorm beds.  I spent the first night relaxing, primarily sitting on the front stoop with manager Mark and a handful of Aussies and Kiwis, enjoying free beer from the hostel.  Most of us didn't last nearly long enough to catch the World Cup game that evening, opting instead for an early bedtime after a few beers and, for me at least, a streetside Bahn Mi.  

The next morning, after sleeping in a bit, I set out to explore the gorgeous town, borrowing a bicycle from the hostel.  There was hardly cloud in the sky, a perfect backdrop against the deep yellow walls of the French buildings that lined the narrow roads.  I pedaled past a bustling market and a pedestrian bridge across a small waterway, then stopped to check out the Japanese Covered Bridge, guarded by stone figures of monkeys on one side, and dogs on the other.  

Having bought a ticket that covers a number of historical sites, I then made my way through three interesting spaces nearby.  The first was a meeting space and the other two were temples, each with incredible outer gates and alter-like spaces, though the icons were unfamiliar to me.  Long coils of red incense hung overhead, with yellow tags hanging from within, presumably a note from the person or family regarding the offering.  Many had dozens of plants, potted or otherwise, and mosaic sculptures of dragons - one with both a dragon and a koi fish.  

Realizing I was starving, I stopped at a beautiful bookstore called Artbook with a cafe upstairs, the walls of each lined with dark wood panels with shelving to house books and nicknacks downstairs, and Belgian beer bottles and glasses upstairs.  It was a beautiful space, and I stayed for a while enjoying a fish and noodle dish for lunch followed by an iced coffee.  

It was too brutally hot for much more exploration after lunch, so I headed out to the beach instead.  I ventured out to the closest beach, settling into a chair to listen to the waves, enjoy the cool breeze coming off the water, and read a book.  

I pedaled back into town and set off to find a bite of dinner once I had gotten cleaned up.  I settled on a street stall that looked pretty good, and it turned out to be one of my favorite spots in all of Ha Noi.  Just across the street from the Mermaid Cafe was a small vendor selling Cao Lau - pork and noodles, topped with sprouts, greens, and crispy pork skin, with a touch of soy sauce and a squeeze of lime - it was absolutely fantastic.  So much so that I led a group back there later that night for another bowl, recruiting Mark and a few girls from the hostel to sample the Cao Lau, as well as Com Ga, their version of chicken rice, and Chao Vit, a rice soup served with duck.  As we sat devouring our bowls, we successfully recruited no less than five passers by to sit down for a bite as well, a trend that would continue over my stay the next few days.  

My favorite Cao Lau guy - make sure you find him in Hoi An!

A big bowl of delicious Cao Lau

The next day I mostly visited some of the small cafes around town, working on editing a few of my photos from around Hanoi and Hoi An.  The day before, I had casually offered to give Mark some of those photos in exchange for my accommodation at the hostel, as they were looking to redecorate.  That morning, he agreed, and I got to work on editing so he could select a few.  My main stop that day was called Reaching Out, a gorgeous, quiet tea house, where the staff is primarily hearing impaired.  I returned to my Cao Lau guy for dinner that evening, successfully recruiting an English couple to sit down, as well as a Dutch couple I had actually met back on my Sapa trek, who had just arrived to Hoi An via motorbike.  After spending most of the evening perched on a tiny plastic stool, recruiting more people to enjoy the delicious bowls of noodles and getting more food recommendations from everyone who joined, I ventured back to the hotel for a quiet night of rest.

Reaching Out Cafe - worth a stop for the delicious tea and quiet atmosphere

I awoke to a surprising comment on one of my Instagram photos, from a guy named Matt that I had gone to high school with and lived only a block away from growing up in Alabama - as it turns out, he was in Hoi An for the day!  I also heard from my English friends, so we all decided to venture out to the beach together, chatting and catching up over lunch and drinks at a beachside restaurant, before spending some time relaxing in beach chairs along the sand.  

That evening Matt and I met up for dinner, deciding to check out one of the places the couple from the night before had recommended, called Bale Well.  It was a bit challenging to find, as we snaked our way through tiny alleyways using Google Maps, but it was well worth it.  They only serve one dish, so once our drink orders were taken, the food arrived almost immediately.  First, a dish full of lettuce, fresh herbs, and cucumbers, another of pickled vegetables, one of rice paper, one of fried spring rolls, and a couple of bowls of dipping sauces.  Next came a plate full of different meats grilled on skewers.  Our server showed us how to assemble the meal, piling all the ingredients into a sheet of rice paper, which she wrapped tightly before gigglingly feeding it directly to Matt.  She returned a few more times to help us create more tasty rolls and deliver even more food - small rice pancakes, and additional skewers of meat.  The food was absolutely incredible, and we were so stuffed we couldn't finish it all!  Despite our struggles, they still brought out a platter of fresh watermelon and a pair of mango puddings for dessert, which we did our best to taste.  As it turned out, Matt wound up leaving Hoi An the following day, so I'm so glad we were able to reconnect over such a tasty meal!

The following day, I joined Kate as she ran some errands around town, picking up some clothes from one of the local tailors.  Hoi An is relatively well-known as being a destination town for getting clothes made, but after having a couple of suits made in Bangkok, I wasn't really in the market for anything.  However, seeing how well-made some of the items Kate had gotten were, I decided to order a simple pencil skirt for myself.  Just one item, that's what they all say, right? More on that later...

That afternoon I spent time at nearby Mia Cafe for a tasty cup of coffee and to do some work.  As I listened to the country music piping overhead, sipping my coffee, working on my laptop, I could have been anywhere in the world.  And then I glanced over to see a lady in a conal hat pushing a cart and a family of four zip by on a motorbike.  Nope, still in Vietnam.  It brought a big smile to my face, those simple characteristics of the country that gave me a deep appreciation for the opportunity to even be there.  That evening Kate wound up meeting me at the hostel, where we enjoyed a couple of free beers and a plate of food from the restaurant across the street, narrowly avoiding an evening downpour.  

And the next day… was my birthday!  Celebrating a birthday abroad can be a sort of strange, bittersweet event.  It's one thing to spend a holiday abroad, where you can experience another country's customs, or if the holiday is a particular one to your own country, team up with ex-pats or travelers from your side of the world to find a way to celebrate.  But birthdays are a bit different - they're a time to spend with close friends and family, and far on the other side of the world, I simply didn't have any of those available to me.  I took the opportunity to spend some hours Skyping with family and my boyfriend over the course of the day, and I had a delicious lunch with Kate and Lydia before they left Hoi An, but otherwise, it was rather uneventful, and a touch lonely.  

I returned to Bi Bo tailor to pick up my skirt that morning, and it fit absolutely perfectly on the very first fitting.  I was thrilled with the results and started chatting with two very fashionable girls who were there for final fittings on a pile of clothes.  One had just tried on a suit jacket with a unique cut to it, and I tried it on with the skirt just to see how it would look.  Then I tumbled down the rabbit hole, ordering a grand total of two skirts, five jackets, and one pair of pants over the course of the day!  And they were so quick, that a day or two was really all I needed!  I picked up the rest of the clothes the following morning before leaving town, all of that for roughly $300 USD - an incredible deal.  

The beautiful and talented Lien at Bi Bo tailor - she was very pregnant in this shot, and my friend reported back to me that she had a healthy baby boy a few weeks ago :)

Two skirts and three of the jackets I purchased!

I convinced Kate and Lydia to join me at a nicer spot for lunch, trying out a place called Mai Fish, where we shared some appetizers and specialties, all of which were amazing.  Cha gio, incredible crispy rolls; bo con cot, beef-stuffed leaf packets over herbs and noodles; hoanh thanh chien, a fantastic open crispy wonton with shrimp and tomato; and bong hong trang, the "white roases" dumplings.  After waiting out another downpour, we bid each other farewell, and I returned to Mia Cafe for an afternoon coffee.  

Unfortunately my Cao Lau guy wasn't out that evening, so I decided to try and find a nice meal for myself that evening.  I wound up weaving past dozens of tourists out on a Friday night, walking along the waterfront and attempting to stop at a popular place with an excellent looking menu, but they were completely full, even for one person.  Disappointed, I wound up at a wine bar with a multi-course tasting menu that looked good.  I should probably have left after seeing the empty restaurant and having two waiters tell me there was a two person minimum for the tasting menu, but I stayed.  The first course was wonderful - a salad of green mango, shrimp, fresh herbs, and peanuts - but unfortunately it was all downhill from there, and the main course of fish was borderline terrible.  Finally I walked back towards the hotel, treating myself to a foot massage along the way.  And I will admit, seeing the little outpouring of well wishes on Facebook from friends near and far, who mostly began messaging late at night when it was my birthday back on the other side of the world, was certainly uplifting.  

My final hours in Hoi An the next morning were spent running around getting last minute details taken care of - a few trips to the tailor for final fittings, and passing along a handful of photos to Mark in exchange for my room the past week, as well as doing a bit of research for my next stops.  

Leaving Hoi An was certainly bittersweet - I had grown to really enjoy the energy of the town, and I absolutely loved photographing its gorgeous alleyways.  I could have easily stayed in that private room longer, exploring more cafes, resting on the beach, wandering the streets of yellow buildings and temples, but I had something of a timeline, and I needed to move on.  That evening I found myself on a sleeper bus bound for Nha Trang, bidding the city farewell and wondering if I would make it back someday.  I certainly hope I do.

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